Coach Dave Joerger finally got his $24 million man and the Kings have seemingly found their small forward, but now Joerger is wondering if Harrison Barnes is best suited for the power forward position in the team’s run-and-gun system.
The organization has been searching for a prototypical small forward with the requisite size, length and athleticism for the job since Rudy Gay went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon early in the 2015-16 season. Iman Shumpert was spirited but undersized. Justin Jackson wasn’t ready to start for a team trying to reach the playoffs for the first time 2006.
So Sacramento made its move last week, sending Shumpert, Jackson and Zach Randolph out in two deals to acquire Barnes from the Dallas Mavericks and Alec Burks from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Kings (30-26) are still trying to integrate both players as they prepare to visit the Denver Nuggets (38-18) on Wednesday in their final game before the All-Star break, but the question weighing on Joerger’s mind is what to do with Barnes.
“I’m still learning what to do,” Joerger said. “How much I do I want to play Harrison at (small forward)? How much at (power forward)? And what do the matchups look like? And I need to get it done sooner than later because we’re not going to find a rhythm if I don’t figure it out quickly.”
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Time is of the essence for a team with no margin for error in an ultra competitive Western Conference playoff race. The Kings, who have won five of their last six games, moved into the eighth spot — percentage points ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers — after the Clippers lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night. The Kings are just three games behind the fourth-place Portland Trail Blazers, but only two games ahead of the 10th-place Los Angeles Lakers.
Joerger, who recently revealed he has secretly coveted Barnes for years dating to his days as the Memphis Grizzlies coach, is happy to have reinforcements to help the Kings make their playoff push. But he admits he isn’t sure how best to utilize Barnes, who has logged 48 percent of his minutes at small forward and 50 percent at power forward over the course of his seven-year NBA career, according to basketballreference.com.
The Golden State Warriors used Barnes primarily as a small forward in 2012-13 and 2014-15, but the majority of his minutes in 2013-14 and 2015-16 were at power forward. Over the past two-plus seasons with the Mavericks, 63 percent of his minutes came at power forward, a figure that increased to 80 percent this season after Dallas made a draft-day trade for small forward Luka Doncic last summer.
Barnes, who was averaging 17.7 points in 49 games for the Mavericks this season, started at small forward in his first two games for the Kings, but he logged about 45 percent of his minutes at power forward as Joerger experimented with different lineup combinations. Barnes averaged 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in wins over the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns, but his numbers should rise as he gets more comfortable and his role becomes more defined.
“Right now, it’ll probably be a combination of both (positions),” Barnes, who is earning $24.1 million this season with a player option for $25.1 million next season, said at his introductory news conference last week. “Coach is still trying to figure out lineups. It’s a lot to figure out in 24 hours, so we’ll just see how it goes and see what works.”
De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield will most certainly continue to start in the backcourt, but Joerger has a number of options in the frontcourt. He could continue to start Barnes at small forward with some combination of Nemanja Bjelica, Willie Cauley-Stein and Marvin Bagley at the power forward and center positions. Or he could start Bogdan Bogdanovic at small forward, Barnes at power forward and either Bagley or Cauley-Stein at center.
When the Kings staged a 19-2 run over the final 6:19 to beat the Heat 102-96 on Friday night, they did it with Fox, Hield, Bogdanovic, Barnes and Cauley-Stein on the floor, but Joerger could go with different combinations depending on matchups.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Joerger said. “You want to be as versatile as we can be at times. It’s going to be a little bit on the run, as we know, and it’s tough on me, but guys are playing as hard as they can and that’s all you can ask as a coach. And it’s on me to figure some of that stuff out.”
Joerger joked that he’s willing to listen if anyone has ideas.
“You guys all have my email,” he quipped. “You can send me suggestions.”